Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tragedy in Tonga!

Hello everyone. For today, I would like to talk about a tragic event that occurred last Friday in the Kingdom of Tonga. I have been corresponding with my old coral diver that still works with my former company. Two boats and two boatman are missing. One of the guys that is missing used to be one of my guys. His name is Tony and he is from Vanuatu. He lives in Tonga and is married to a local and has children. My heart sank as I heard the news. You see Tony and I spent a lot of time together on the boats acting as boatman. He and I would talk about many things while waiting for the coral or the fish guys to come back up. I even caught him sneaking out with our boat at night to do night fishing. I used to fill the fuel tanks at night for the boats, and by morning some of it had been used. Cleverly disguised but I knew there were some missing. So one night me and my lead coral diver stayed up late and drove by our boat. It was missing! Of course I had to scold him and told him that if he wants to go night fishing, then let me know. If the guys did a good job on collecting corals let's say, I would let them use the boat.

Evidently last Friday, two boats went out on the east side of the main island to catch fish. The east side is a nasty place to be, with heavy currents and huge surges. This is where the famous blowholes of Tonga are. Huge waves smashes into the coast line and water travels into channels in the ground. Once it can't go anywhere, it pushes upward through an opening. The water shoots up way into the sky, thus "blowhole".

Each of the boats has Filipino fish divers and a local boatman that operates the boat and helps with changing scuba tanks. It is common for our guys to go out with guys from another company. The Filipinos are all friends and sometimes work together to catch fish. The fish are shared between the two companies afterwards.

After the Filipino divers surfaced to change their oxygen tanks, the boats were gone. Both boats and boatmen had vanished. The divers swam to shore and soon the search was on.

This is the theory. This area is known for huge underground caves. During low tide, water surges in with great force. Somehow the boats may have capsized and with the guys, got sucked into the caves. These are small boats and if there is a sudden big wave, it can flip over. What ever happened, it happened very fast, as these guys are excellent boat handlers. Also being excellent swimmers, (at least Tony) they should have been able to swim to shore. Diving for fish and corals is a dangerous job. Once in a while these tragic accidents do happen. Below are two of my personal experiences that really put a scare in me about what we do.

Once I was watching our boat waiting for my coral divers to come up. I was anchored in about 10 feet of water on a reef. It was about 10 minutes into the waiting game and I started feeling not so good in my stomach. The waves had picked up and I was turning blue. So I laid down on the bow and closed my eyes. I must have dozed off for few minutes. I woke up to see one of my divers yelling and holding up the anchor! Holy crap, the rope had come loose and I was drifting. In the few minutes that I dozed off, I drifted about 100 yards! So you can see how lucky I was that my guy surfaced when he did. My guys could have swam to a nearby island no problem, but for me, I would have been lost. The currents are so quick that if I had dozed off for an hour, I could be in the middle of the ocean and wouldn't know which way to go! After that incident, I made sure for the safety of my guys and me, that I would keep alert at all times - even if I have to puke!

The second incident is 100 times more frightening. We were on a large marlin boat (we were borrowing it from the queen) in the open ocean. We were in search of blue tangs. Me and Robert (owner of Aquatic Specialties and Pets) were with our three Filipino and two Tongan divers. The Tonga guys were training to catch fish with the Filipinos. They had "graduated" from coral collecting. Our captain was very experienced and we had one first mate. We were very far out from the mainland, couldn't see any islands at all. The divers went down to the reef below and our captain started to follow the bubbles of the divers. About 10 minutes later, our captain lost the bubbles! We circled the area and waited for the guys to surface. Another 20 minutes later, there were no signs of the guys. Another 10 minutes in and they should have all ran out of oxygen and be up but no sign of them. Holy crap! We started to panic and our captain just started to go in all directions looking for the guys. I felt this cold chill up my spine and truly realized the scope of our situation. There was a good chance that we would never see my divers again! Me and Robert said nothing trying to stay calm and focused in the horizon for any signs.

What felt like eternity, after another 30 minutes later of going in all directions, we heard the faint cries. We had a GPS, but didn't matter, as the current could have taken the guys anywhere. Way in the distance, I saw the water splashing. The guys were huddled together and used their fins to splash water into the air. You cannot begin to imagine how relieved Robert and I were. The divers were pretty pissed as you can imagine. They had been watching us and yelling but we couldn't hear or see them. I can imagine how they felt as they saw us go in circles trying to find them. Their whole life depended on which direction we would go. They would loose hope as they saw us go off away from them. Then only to have hope as we turned around. But remember we were just going every different direction panicking. I felt extremely lucky that we didn't loose our guys.

Some of the divers had dropped their equipment, but our head Tongan guy came onto the boat clutching the bucket of blue tangs! I was thinking "what the hell?" It was the funniest thing! I couldn't help laugh and the guys all laughed with me. Everyone was just glad to be back on the boat. I wanted to call it a day but the divers wanted to catch fish. So we headed back to the harbor area and anchored in a lagoon next to one of the islands. Here we spent the day catching common bread and butter fish.

After the incident, I told our guys "no more open water diving", ever! Way too dangerous. Our captain also resigned after the incident.


After my personal experiences, I developed much more respect for the divers. After the incident, it wasn't the same for me when I go out with the guys on the boat. I became lot more cautious and developed a whole lot of respect for mother nature.

As for the poor guys in Tonga, my heart goes out to the families. I just hope the owners of the companies take responsibility and take care of the families of the lost ones.

Just so you know, last year, two Filipino divers never surfaced after going down in Tonga. That company is no longer in business. Filipino divers in Vanuatu and also in the Red Sea have died. These are just a few incidents that I know of. Just what is the price to pay for having pretty little fish in our aquariums?

Since the incident, both companies have stopped all operations. I personally feel that the whole aquarium fish/coral trade in Tonga is in jeopardy, especially in light of the liverock closure and a reduction in hard corals. Add to this, the deaths of locals will definitely have a huge impact.

I see the similarities in the aquarium fish trade with the sea cucumber trade years ago. Years ago, there was a thriving business in sea cucumbers in Tonga. These things are everywhere and easy to collect. They are gutted and cooked and dried for export. Markets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, etc. can't get enough of this stuff. Some of the best species can go for $40 a kilo! As the long slimy guys started to disappear in the shallow water, locals started using hooka rigs (compressor) to go down to deeper water to collect the cucumbers. Of course the locals were never trained on decompression and such dangers of diving. People started to die from decompression sickness, or would stay down too long. In the end, the King stepped in and put a moratorium on the sea cucumber trade. Not just that, he outlawed the use of compressors. That is why all the divers use scuba. I have heard that the compressors are actually safer than scuba. One obvious reason is that you can't get lost as you are tied to the long hose that provides the oxygen from the boat.

Are you getting my point? Now do you see why I think the whole aquarium fish/coral trade is in danger?

The next time you look at your aquarium, please give a moment of silence and think about the poor guys that have lost their lives so we can have pretty fish in our aquariums.

Thank you,


Anonymous said...

Often times people don't think about where their cherished goods come from. Sometimes they don't even give a damn as long as the price is low and the colors are nice.

I was watching Blood Diamonds acouple of nights ago, so this is a trip for me.

The public needs to hear more stories like this about what goes on behind the trade. Fish and corals don't magically appear in shops from the reef fairy. The collecting and supplying end usually gets the short end of the stick when things go bad. The importers simply find another source in a third world country willing to sell off its resources for a buck.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for sharing this sotry, and it is a story needed to be told.
We are forturnate enough to live in a nice and safe enviroment and enjoying our hobby. The people that risks their lives every day to bring us the goods must not be forgoten.
Take care youself, we missed you and Ann

Eddie H. said...

Hi Bryan,

And if the "buck" means to get deepwater ventralis anthias, no problem right, just send divers to 120 plus feet to get them. Wrong! but this is exactly what happens. And you are right, hobbyists really don't know what goes on behind the scenes. Sometimes they are naive too. For example, if I was to hold up a hammer in a reef collecting corals, people would say that it is wrong. But how do you think the corals that are in their tanks get collected, with toothpicks?

This is why I have started this blog, to educate and show fellow reefers what actually goes on behind the scenes.


Eddie H. said...

Hello anonymous,

First thanks for missing me and my wife! That is pretty cool to hear.

I wish the guys would be playing a stupid joke, but that is not the case.

Yes we are lucky to be enjoying the hobby part of the chain. Not so much fun for the guys that have to dive everyday to make a meager living while risking their lives. Sometimes the luck runs out and a tragedy occurs.


Aquaculture Northern Bali

November Corals Collection Part. 1

November Corals Collection Part. 2

Aquaculture - November Shipment

Coral Showcase - September 2008 Inventory

Holding Facility's Corals Collection Showcase 2007